From a commentary piece @ the Wire
- Awareness that Delhi is the most polluted city in India. The fact is that Delhi is the most studied and the most documented city on air pollution issues. Almost all the national as well as international agencies want to work in Delhi. The city has the most number of air-pollution monitors operated by multiple agencies, including the emerging non-regulatory low-cost monitors. So, with most coverage, it has obviously become known as the most polluted city in the country. If data from other cities can be as freely documented and disseminated at the same scale, this could be different.
- Most of Delhi’s pollution comes from outside Delhi. Somehow, that air pollution knows no administrative boundaries becomes suddenly applicable here and Delhiites become more willing to point fingers at their neighbours. This is partly true – particularly when there is a dust storm coming in from the Thar desert or the Middle East (common occurrences in April and May) and during the agricultural-clearing season in Punjab and Haryana (common occurrences in November). Other than that, everything is very much local. The media usually starts talking about air pollution in late October and November as the agricultural clearing peaks. For the same reasons, we simply assume all our pollution, all year long, comes from outside Delhi.
- We need more studies to ascertain where the pollution is coming from. As a scientist, I agree, we need more studies – to enhance our understanding. However, we do know most of the sources to act now. Consider any 2-3-km-wide block in Delhi and you are likely to find residential cooking and heating, waste burning (it is banned only on paper), some form of industrial activity, diesel generators, vehicles and associated road dust, construction activities – all low-lying sources that contribute to local pollution.
- Transport is the biggest contributor to air pollution in the city. The Central Pollution Control Board released one report in 2010 that put transport contribution at under 20%. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee released one report in 2015 that put transport contribution at under 25%. Both were conducted by the same team, at IIT-Kanpur. This means up to 75% of the pollution is from non-transport sources. This is a classic case of “what we see is what we believe in”. We are stuck in traffic for a few hours a day, moving at 15 km/hr, with an engine under the hood that can go at 100 km/hr and we start blaming transport for all air pollution problems. Transportation’s contribution must be cut – but we shouldn’t be neglecting other contributions along the way.
- The odd-even pilot was good for mitigating air pollution. The average commute speeds in the city went up but no statistically significant change could be monitored for air quality. We missed the bus here: the goal is to cut the demand for personal transport, not target individuals with cars. Take Hong Kong or Singapore, example: both cities managed to cut down the demand for personal transport by setting up a very wide network of public transportation systems (road and rail), walkways and bikeways, and promoted them aggressively. They also have economic measures in place, such as higher vehicle sales and congestion taxes that further enabled the move from personal to public modes of transport. All this was possible only because the alternatives were in place – more buses and inter-connectivity via rail, walkways and bikeways. The odd-even policy was, and is, a good policy but for the level of infrastructure in Delhi, this will remain an experiment. If we want this move to be permanent, irrespective of whether someone owns a car/motorcycle or its registration number, we need a safe and clean infrastructure that will move people from point A to point B using rail, bus, bike and walk – and eliminate the need for personal transport. The Delhi Transport Corporation operates approximately 6,000 buses but the city could use at least 15,000.
- There is a silver bullet to control pollution. This is a long term game and history tells us that this fight was not easy – neither in the EU nor in the US. Today, countries like India and China are better placed in terms of there being examples to look up to, lessons to take home from the EU’s and USA’s experiences, and the technology to control pollution is far superior than what was available in the 1980s and 1990s. If anything, the challenge is now in convincing policymakers to learn from the past and act fast. In India, we are seeing changes in some sectors, such as new emission standards for coal-fired thermal power plants, accelerated introduction of cleaner fuel for the transportation sector, promotion of liquefied petroleum gas and incentives for better industrial efficiency. These are good global measures that will take some time to trickle down. But more importantly, the faster we act on implementing these developments, the faster we will move towards having cleaner air.
- Installing more monitors to control pollution. Measuring pollution is not controlling pollution. Nonetheless, official statements continue to claim this step of air quality management as a control strategy. Though we do need more data and nothing beats an informed decision, generating information is not controlling pollution.
- Pollution can be controlled with air filters. This is more like avoiding the problem and diverting attention away from the problem than solving it. Emissions should be controlled at the source. If you are in a room with one door, it makes perfect sense to filter the air; but what sense does it make if there are no walls altogether?